The "tea party" movement has a lot more going for it than a rightward shift in electoral preferences. It's restoring competition to congressional seats long dominated by incumbents. It's forcing the public to confront the toll of the Democratic Party's alliance with public-sector unions on America's fiscal health. And, for a conservative in Massachusetts like me, it means elected officials and candidates will take my views more seriously.
Despite Congress's abysmal 21 percent approval rating and the miracle election of Republican Sen. Scott Brown earlier this year, I harbor no illusions that Massachusetts will remain anything but cobalt blue. Still, the mere fact that the Bay State's liberal representatives in Washington now have to compete for votes is positive.
The yeasty mix of issues and ideas sprinkled by the tea party leavens the political loaf for everyone. More people who feel electorally challenged are campaigning, voting, and participating in the democratic process than otherwise would. President Obama's 2008 run did the same for black and young voters in every state. He not only provided the motivation to vote, but a chance to win – a crucial distinction for those used to voting in vain.
I had to vote for myself
My sharecropper-in-Mississippi experience began in 1979, when I moved to Boston from Montana. At my first primary vote, I was cut off at the knees. I asked for the Republican ballot. I was informed there was none. The only option to not voting was a write-in vote. I ended up voting for myself.
Uncontested and safe seats at the local, state, and national level cover the body politic like kudzu, a growth unimagined by the nation's Founders. The litany of reasons why almost all members of Congress can stay in power so long is by now common knowledge: computer-assisted gerrymandering of districts (the DNA of Massachusetts politics), military bases, public-employee unions, even districts created to redress past racial injustices. And then, of course, members' ability to bring home treasure from Washington.
Such seats, especially in the US House of Representatives, foster what James Madison in "The Federalist No. 10" warned against: faction. He feared disenfranchisement would create its political reciprocal, an excess of faction leading to tyranny.
For Madison, liberty was the antidote. It was the means by which individuals working through representative government could mollify the effects of what was to him a given of human nature. Faction would not go away, but it could be used to balance itself.
No political monopoly on government
Think of it in terms of the separation of church and state (another concept Madison brilliantly espoused). There must be no state monopoly on religion, just the right to practice one's religion. This joined all citizens in a common effort to make sure the state didn't establish someone else's religion.
Tea party voters know the national Democratic Party is joined at the hip to public-sector unions, creating a faction that has too great a say in representative government. This faction is unable or unwilling to control public spending. In the spirit of Madison, the tea party wants no political monopoly on government; it simply wants to limit government's role to protecting the rights of individuals.
Tea party folks are suspicious of the federal government's deficit and "stimulus" spending that props up the faction of public employment at the expense of private employment. Such favoritism puts liberty at grave risk. Think of the Jacksonians, America's first populist wave in the 1830s, who opposed a national bank that could print money.
Thanks to the tea party, many more officials will have to justify positions on taxes, spending, entitlements, health care, and immigration policy. That's infinitely better than the sonorous platitudes spouted in uncontested elections. And, as Madison envisioned, there's a silver lining for folks who don't support the tea party. The renewed competition means lonely Democrats in red states like Idaho or Texas are also making their voices heard.
The two major parties' dominance over elections isn't going to vanish, but their hold over the political discussion already has.
Jim Bencivenga is a former teacher and Monitor staffer.